Report - CNA's Center for Naval Analyses

CNA Maritime Asia Project Workshop Two: Naval Developments in Asia

  • Michael A. McDevitt
  • Catherine K. Lea
| 2012


As part of its Maritime Asia project, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) conducted a workshop focused on naval developments in Asia. The purpose of this workshop was to explore the interaction between China's ongoing naval modernization and the navy modernization programs that most of China's neighbors are pursuing. The point was not to revisit the often asked question of whether a naval arms race is underway in East Asia. The entire "arms race" paradigm probably does not make sense: technically speaking, a naval arms race in Asia with China is not really possible, because no other Asian country can keep pace with the scope and sophistication of China's naval modernization. China simply is too wealthy and has too much capacity.

Rather, the hope was to explore what has been called a "capabilities competition." For example, Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities are triggering an approach that the United States has dubbed the "Air-Sea Battle," which is intended to field capabilities that will assure access. So what we have are diametrically opposed concepts based on different sets of capabilities — one set to deny access versus another set intended to assure access. Other Asian countries are responding to different aspects of Chinese access denial capabilities, especially its submarine force and its eventual power-projection capabilities (the PLAN aircraft carrier program). Meanwhile, everyone confronts the classic security dilemma. China's attempt to improve its security is making its Asian neighbors who depend on US maritime power less secure.

The combination of China's expanding overseas economic activities and corresponding need for security has created a demand signal for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to protect People's Republic of China (PRC) interests abroad. This entails supporting United Nations-sanctioned missions, assisting PRC citizens who are in jeopardy or require evacuation, protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and responding to natural disasters. Over the last half decade, the PLAN—more so than China's other military services—has been seriously involved in integrating distant, prolonged peacetime operations as part of its core mission set.

As the PLAN has learned, these new missions require a different mix of naval capabilities than its wartime "counter intervention concept." It is the submarine force and land-based naval aviation arm which are the central players in what DOD characterizes as area-denial operations. The PLAN's surface force plays second fiddle in these scenarios. This role is reversed during peacetime; then, it is the surface navy that has pride of place due to its ability to deploy worldwide.

As the PLAN demonstrates genuine competence and professionalism in distant sea operations, Asian littoral states will likely begin to notice that it is becoming more expeditionary—which is another way of saying that it will be able to project power. Clearly, the introduction of modern amphibious ships, and shortly an aircraft carrier force, provides the PLAN with a credible power-projection capability. The workshop explored how much this emerging capability is creating a demand by Asian littoral states for naval modernization that in some cases includes area-denial capabilities, such as submarines and land-based aircraft with anti-ship cruise missiles....

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For Academic Citation: McDevitt, Michael A. and Catherine K. Lea, eds. “CNA Maritime Asia Project Workshop Two: Naval Developments in Asia.” CNA's Center for Naval Analyses, 2012.

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